Music has always possessed a cathartic nature as a vessel to try and make sense of the world, both for those who make it and those who listen. This process was an essential means of self-preservation for Chris Baio last year in the shocking aftermath of Brexit and the U.S. election. The multi-instrumentalist, who has lived in South London for the past four years, became obsessed with following the news, unable to focus on anything else. The tracks that make up his second solo album started flowing out as he tried to understand all he was witnessing.
At its core, Man of the World is about Baio living abroad but feeling more American than he ever has in his life, and wrestling with the good and the bad of that identity. To do so, the central tension between the often-dark lyrics and the upbeat music is key. Instead of the house and techno beats from his first album The Names, there are more natural grooves containing a wider dynamic range, with Wu-Tang Clan a core influence. It allows for a different album with a different sound, but one still firmly rooted in the personal.
Below, Baio speaks to Behind the Setlist about how going through the Man of the World process has impacted him, why he feels a little less alone these days, his musical hero David Bowie, what’s next for Vampire Weekend, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you still like living in London these days?
Yeah, I still love it actually. I moved here four years ago, and it’s a pretty awesome and special place to be. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Have you been over there longer than you anticipated originally?
I don’t know, it’s hard to remember. When I first moved over here, it was in connection with my wife’s job. It was a two-year relocation contract. That’s a pretty boring reason to move to another country, but we really did find we liked it, so we got another visa to stay over here. We didn’t really move with any preconception about how long we’d stay, but it’s been a good four years.
You were able to tour quite a bit off of your last record, The Names, which was your first time playing live shows with Baio for an extended time period. What did you learn about Baio going through all those shows that you didn’t know beforehand?
The biggest thing I learned over the course of touring The Names was how my voice responds to the different things I do with my throat. On the first record, I was experimenting, trying to figure out how to sing and come up with something that I liked. I would do things like simplify melodies, and try and try and try. I played 100 shows on The Names, which was more than I’d ever sung in my life before.
So when I went to start working on this new record, Man of the World, and when I started recording vocals, it happened so much quicker because I had a better sense of what I was doing, more from the touring than from making the first record. I remember the first song I worked on with John, my co-producer, was the song “Man of the World.” The first time he played it back to me after copping my vocals sounded exponentially better than anything on the first record.
You’ve talked about how a lot of this record was influenced by Brexit and the U.S. election, with you trying to make sense of that madness and confusion. What was it like working that out through the music?
I would say it was cathartic and a means of self-preservation. I got to this point where my entire days were filled with following the news and being horrified by what was happening. I wasn’t able to concentrate or focus on anything else. I realized I had to stop, so I started writing tracks. I wrote the first eight songs on this record in a really quick two-week time period. I had no plans of making another record so quickly, but it all just poured out of me. It had to do with a lot of the things I was witnessing, trying to understand or personally experiencing.
I did those eight songs and then I went on the last tour for The Names. I came back on the day of the election and really lost my mind and went to a dark place after that. I wrote the ninth and tenth songs, which are all about the shame, the fear and the paranoia of the election. It was my way of processing everything.
You had an interesting experience driving across the country right before the election and then going home the day of. Now that there’s been several months and a little bit of hindsight, what sticks out about that time the most to you?
I drove on that last tour from California to New York to Texas. When I say I drove, I mean I really drove. I wasn’t on a tour bus or anything. It was just me and George Hume, who plays guitar with me live. George doesn’t have a driver’s license, so I drove the country. What really struck me was that any time you left the city, there would be Trump-Pence signs everywhere. Including the cities, I would say across the country there was a 10:1 ratio of support for Trump-Pence. Now at the time, I did not think he would win. I thought he had no chance.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I drove around this neighborhood and there were all these signs.” I don’t think you can necessarily extrapolate that much, but when you drive the whole country, you see that division and it’s pretty stark. My main observation at the time was not “Wow, this is going to be a close election” or “Wow, he’s going to win.” It was “How could this many people be supporting a maniac?” That was my thought at the time.
Obviously, when I got home I stayed up late and saw what happened. I was maybe not connecting in the way that I should have, but the geographical divide, the city versus the suburban and rural, is the thing that I think will stick with me most for the rest of my life from that specific tour and driving the country.
The title Man of the World has a couple different meanings, one of them is you being an American living abroad now. How do you think these last four years have come to shape how you view America and the world?
It’s weird because being an American living in London, I feel more American than I ever have before in my life. Any time anyone leaves their country of origin, they become more aware of how their country of origin represents them or is carried with them. In a weird way, America feels more personal than it does when I’m in America, if that makes any sense. That is for the good and the bad.
On my first record, I was singing a bit about things that happen in the government that I disagree with or have trouble with, like the idea of paying taxes to a government that does these extrajudicial violent acts. Somehow because I feel more American living in London, it feels more personal to me. It feels more a part of my identity. That’s been the main shift in my life since moving.
Does that play a part in why you’ve said “Shame in My Name” is the thesis of this record?
Yeah, 100 percent. There’s a sense of feeling like I could have done more, whether it means being more proactive during the election or just hopping on the phone with people in my extended family who maybe I would disagree with politically or be inclined to vote for Trump in a swing state. I have always had a dislike of conflict. For that reason, I didn’t call a grandparent or an uncle. I didn’t do everything I could to combat something I thought was very, very scary and extremely dangerous for the world. That sense of shame is definitely where I’m coming from.
It’s also the thesis for the record because the record is about living in my own head, feeling anxious, but also realizing there are real world consequences of this election. People are going to be suffering. I think you’re seeing that in multiple ways by what’s been happening in the first five months of this administration.
Writing about these serious topics, you pair that with music that is very upbeat, and this record has even more of a groove feel than The Names did. How do you like playing those two things off each other?
In all songs I like, there’s a sense of tension and release. You can find tension in different ways. If you were to analyze a song in terms of what it makes you feel, the verse is this piece of music that gives you this insane itch, and then the chorus is scratching that itch and feeling the intensity of satisfaction. There’s always tension, in one way or another, in every song that I love.
One way you can form tension is by having the music and the lyrics be at odds. That’s something I was doing a lot of on this record. A song like “Out of Tune” has these kind of triumphant horns, but the lyrics are quite dark.
You were able to make it have its own distinct feel from what you did on The Names. I know you were pulling on some different influences this time, like Skepta and Wu-Tang Clan, for example. Was that a challenge? What was that process like to create something different?
It wasn’t too much of a challenge. The Names came from a very specific tempo place. I was thinking of club music and club culture and DJ mixes, specifically house and techno. That comes at a fairly narrow tempo range. The slowest song on that record is 120 beats per minute and the fastest song is 128 beats per minute. I knew immediately as a starting point for this record that I wanted to have a really dramatic tempo range.
You don’t want your second record to be a worse version of your first. You want it to be different, have its own life, have its own sound. One of the easiest things was to say the tempo is going to be as wide as possible a range. So the slowest song on this record is 77 beats per minute and the fastest is 200 beats per minute. That’s a much wider range than the first record.
And then you find little things you did that you repeated on a record. There are chord progressions I tend to favor. I think every songwriter favors certain chord progressions, so I really tried to change the chord progressions. I changed up the grooves a lot. I was not using as much house and techno grooves or four on the floor kick patterns. If you can identify elements that define a record, you can find new elements to define a different sound for a different record.
You’ve said on numerous occasions how David Bowie is your favorite artist. How much was his presence in your mind while you were working?
It was there every day. The lyrics are about my experiences of the last year, particularly my relation to historical events. When I think back to the beginning of last year, the first thing I can remember happening was Bowie passing. I live in South London, not too far away from Brixton, which is where he was born and spent the first six years of his life. The day after he passed, I went to his childhood home. And then when I was picking a studio of where to work on the record, I picked one in Brixton.
I don’t know if you’ve seen online or in the news immediately after he passed, but there’s this really big mural of the Aladdin Sane cover on this wall in Brixton. It’s where people leave flowers and take photos. I picked this studio that’s at the end of that road. Every day on the way to the studio, I would walk past this big mural with people taking photos and leaving flowers. It literally happens all day, every day. Whenever I would leave to go get coffee, people were taking photos.
It was a great reminder, both of my favorite artist but also as a reminder of how music touches and affects people. That’s a great thing to have front and center every time you go into the studio. So Bowie was there in my mind every single day of the record.
I assume the time you have to support this record depends on the next Vampire Weekend record and when that gets going again. What are your plans you want to be able to do with this record?
I’m hoping to get to tour it a bit. This record is very personal to me and something that came together very quickly. To get to go into rooms and play that music and share it with other people I imagine will be one of the great joys of my life. I’m hoping to be able to do it as much as possible, but it really depends on scheduling, which is an extremely unromantic answer about the romantic nature of playing music live. So, we’ll see [laughs].
Do you have a timeline for when you hope to get a new Vampire Weekend record out?
The timeline is it’ll happen when it happens. It’s been a while at this point. It’s coming, but it’s not imminent. But I think everyone should be very excited for the next record.
The thing I’m most curious about is this will be your first record without Rostam as an official member. What has that transition been like to start to deal with?
All that stuff will be revealed when the record comes out. I tend not to like setting expectations on what the record will be like until it’s done because things can change in infinite ways. There’s a Frank Zappa quote where it’s like we can change it in the studio, or we can change it in mastering or we can change it when it’s shrink-wrapped. An album is endlessly mutable until it’s done.
Talking too much about the process while you’re still in it is kind of counterproductive. It’s something we’ll definitely be talking about a lot when the record comes out, but until then I don’t think it really helps to talk too much about it right now.
Doing Baio, do you find you have a different type of fulfillment in doing something where you oversee everything versus being in a band like Vampire Weekend? Are there things you prefer in one over the other? Are there things you miss? How do you contrast those two?
I love working on music in whatever capacity. I’ve scored a couple movies, and in that scenario you’re 100 percent serving the taste and direction of the director. It’s about executing someone else’s vision. Making your own solo record, where you have complete control over that, is something where you’re executing your own vision. Playing in a band, writing a bass line for a song, you’re really just trying to serve a song as best as possible.
These are three very different ways of working that have different levels of control. I can honestly say that I love them all equally. It’s kind of a picking a favorite child type situation, if you know what I mean.
With the Man of the World album out this week, do you find you are more comfortable now, personally and globally, than you were when you first started? How has going through this process impacted you?
If I’m being totally honest, we’re five months into this administration and I didn’t think it would be as inept and chaotic. I thought they would be much more effective at enacting their hateful agenda. At the same time, they are having successes, and I will have at least a low level of paranoia every moment Donald Trump has access to the nuclear codes. So those deeper feelings and sentiments are not gone, but at the very least they’ve been fairly inept.
When you were finishing the record in L.A., you were able to take part in the Women’s March and LAX protest. What did you take away from those events?
At that point, I had written the first 10 tracks of the record and was in L.A. mixing it. I had spent a lot of last year watching the crowds at these Trump rallies and the violent frenzy people were getting whipped up into. It made me fearful for my country and fearful for the world. When I went to the Women’s March and stood in a crowd of 750,000 people who I would imagine felt similarly to me, it felt comforting. I felt much less alone than I did since watching the election results come in alone at my place in London. I felt more like “We’re in it now.”
The LAX protest was also very heartening, to be part of a crowd that was opposing a really terrible executive order, and I similarly felt much less alone than I had the two months previous to those two marches. The last track on the record, “Be Mine,” is apolitical. It’s a love song and maybe a bit of a release after the two darkest tracks on the record. Whether that was the result of feeling less alone or just because I was in the mood to write a love song that day, I don’t know. But it’s entirely possible that was an influence on the last track.